Social equity has been a major thrust of New York’s cannabis reform law. Social equity and business have become inseparably linked in the language of the law, as the legalization of the fast-growing and competitive cannabis industry has also meant providing the greatest possible participation to those communities most harmed by its historical prohibition, according to state officials.
To that end, New York has set a goal to give half of its licenses to minority and social equity applicants and to develop education plans aimed at those communities on how to best obtain such licenses. The law also includes low-cost loans and incubator programs to help minority entrepreneurs break into the business.
As Village of Valley Stream officials deliberate the future of cannabis dispensaries and on-site consumption lounges, Esther Lelievre, 34, an educational counselor with community roots in the village, and Jessica Naissant, 27, a resident and the owner of the hemp-based Wake and Bake Cafe on Rockaway Avenue, have already started to make moves in the industry. Together they’ve started a five-person colored equity and entrepreneurial support group known informally as Cannigroup.
The goal of Cannigroup, according to Lelievre, is to provide minority entrepreneurs with a more comprehensive assessment of the developing market through the sharing of professional experience and expertise. Each member is currently looking to venture into a specific segment of the industry, whether it be a licensed dispensary and cultivation or ancillary opportunities like marketing, transportation and recruiting. Collaborative business groups such as these help minority entrepreneurs gain a foothold in an industry that suffers from a stark lack of diversity and inclusion among its leading investors and business owners who are, statistics indicate, overwhelmingly white. The Herald spoke with Lelievre and Naissant about the prospects and challenges of entering the market.
The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Herald: What are some of the barriers to entry or challenges that you can identify for minority business owners?
Lelievre: Capital is one of them. Most states have not reached their social equity numbers as far as letting it be socially equitable for the people that have been affected by the war on drugs.
The current industry establishment has kept information very close to their chest in making sure that more and more of us aren’t involved in the process. The reality is that we people of color are the reason the industry is what it is now. They mimic our style and our culture to attract people into their stores. We are still a predominant part of the buying market in the world.
Naissant: Not to mention that there has been a lot of misinformation even prior to adult recreational use being legalized but even more so before medicinal cannabis. It once seemed far-fetched to get into the industry without having millions of dollars or any type of backing from a government program to get into the industry because essentially there was no information to be had when opening a medical marijuana dispensary or recreational marijuana dispensary. There’s been this entire underground cannabis club that most minorities are not a part of.
Herald: How would an incubator model designed to ease entrepreneurs into the business help to advance social equity?
Lelievre: I personally believe it would be helpful because there are companies that get to invest in small business looking to tap into the cannabis industry that don’t necessarily have the capital. Just the application process alone takes tens of thousands of dollars, not even accounting retail space and inventory. With the incubator program, you have a foundation you can build off rather than starting from scratch. I don’t believe New York has done enough to provide that opportunity to enough people with regards to investing, accessing grants and leading industries putting social equity at the forefront.
Herald: What are some of the various uses for cannabis products?
Lelievre: As a former cancer patient and working with a lot of people who suffer from lupus, traditional medicines are often harsh to your body and people turn to herbs such as cannabis as more suitable alternatives. The military is even looking to cannabis therapy to help veterans with PTSD. You can use cannabis in gels, creams and topicals.
Naissant: There are just so many ways to use cannabis now, whereas before there wasn’t. You can even condense it and make it into wax and butters. People are becoming more educated on how to micro-dose and use cannabis for more medicinal components. It helps with migraine, it helps with menopause, hormone regulation, appetite suppression, seizures. I mean, the list goes on and on.